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PTSD and Addiction: Everything You Need to Know

By Kyle Kirkland
Medically Reviewed by Yilang Tang, MD, PhD on July 26, 2021
PTSD and addiction combined can have negative effects. We talked to medical experts about PTSD, addiction, and treatment.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition that develops after a person witnesses or experiences a traumatic event. People who struggle with PTSD can experience an array of serious symptoms for which they may try to self-medicate. We talked to the experts about PTSD and addiction. 

What is PTSD?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Anyoneregardess of age, ethnicity, or identitywho experiences or witnesses a traumatic event can develop PTSD.

According to Mayo Clinic, there are four main symptoms of PTSD:

  • Flashbacks/unwanted memories of the event
  • Avoiding thoughts or things that remind you of the event
  • Negative thoughts about yourself and the world
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions, such as feeling easily startled, being always on guard, irritability, and outbursts of anger

Experiencing any of these symptoms may prevent you from engaging in normal social activities, which can increase feelings of isolation.

Is There a Link Between PTSD and Addiction?

“Individuals with PTSD are more likely to have a substance use disorder at some point in their lives compared to those who do not suffer from PTSD,” Mary Rorro, DO, a psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

According to Rorro, some patients with PTSD may be at increased risk of self-medicating with alcohol to reduce/eliminate common PTSD symptoms such as: 

  • Intrusive memories
  • Hyperarousal
  • Nightmares
  • Depression and anxiety

“The brain of someone diagnosed with PTSD or following a traumatic event produces fewer endorphins,” according to Eileen Dewey, LCSW-C, SAP, a program administrator at Columbia Treatment Center. “Under such conditions, individuals often turn to substances to help produce the endorphins they crave,” Dewey says.

“Once the substance use escalates and the body becomes physically dependent on the drug—when a person tries to stop they will experience withdrawal symptoms. This tends to have a negative effect on the trauma and worsens those symptoms, creating a problematic cycle,” Meghan Marcum, PsyD, Chief Psychologist at A Better Life Recovery, tells WebMD Connect to Care. Someone with PTSD and addiction may start behaving differently in ways such as easily getting angered or isolating themselves from society.

If you know someone struggling with PTSD, it is very important you find a skilled therapist. “Look for a therapist or program that provides a trauma-informed treatment that combines a variety of interventions, including medications, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, etc.,” Dewey says.

A combination of a mental health condition and substance abuse disorder is called a “dual diagnosis”, and treatment should focus on each condition separately. “Treatment should always include a thorough screen for both trauma and substance use with each issue addressed as part of a comprehensive treatment plan,” Marcum says. 

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. 

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